In this article, I’ll discuss what I’ve learnt about this “way” from reviewing hundreds of Henley MBA assignments and marker reports. Spoiler alert: it’s not really Henley’s way.
So, what is it?
Henley’s requirements for assignments are not particularly unique – they’re not trying to make you jump through hoops for fun of it. For the most part, the Henley way simply amounts to good academic writing. I’d speculate that the main reason MBA students get tripped up is that they’re used to writing for the business world, rather than the academic world. While Henley assignments typically require a business report style, assignments are still academic pieces of work.
What is Henley looking for, specifically?
When you submit your assignment to Henley, they assess it against three broad criteria:
Naturally, these are not evenly weighted – the bulk of the marks go to the first criterion (content), but all three are still very important. Let’s look at each of them in a bit more detail.
Criterion #1: Content
This criterion is where most of the marks are earned (and lost!). Essentially, this is all about how well you used the theory to develop a strong analysis, insights and conclusions.
There are a few things they’re looking for here:
C1: Did you use the prescribed module theory (well)?
If there’s only one thing that markers need to assess, its whether you’ve gained a strong understanding of the module’s key theory. To do this, they need to see that you’ve used the right models, frameworks and theory for the right purpose and applied them well to generate useful insights or answers to your questions. This sounds obvious enough, but all too often, I see students do one of two things:
- Undertake huge sections of analysis (or rather, discussion) without using any of the prescribed models, frameworks or theory – in other words, they present an essay/opinion piece rather than an analysis.
- Alternatively, they copy/paste a model or framework into their assignment and just describe it, instead of applying it to generate relevant insights.
Therefore, it’s essential that you carefully use the right theory for the right purpose. There’s a balancing act here – try to integrate as much theory as possible into your assignment, but at the same time, don’t include a model or framework for the sake of it. Every piece of theory you use should have a clear purpose. For step-by-step guidance, see my post on how to use models, frameworks and theories the right way.
C2: Did you analyse or merely describe?
Descriptive writing discusses the “what?” (what happened, who did what, etc), whereas analytical writing discusses the impact of the “what?” on your specific topic or research questions. In other words, analytical writing extends to the “so what?”.
To earn good marks, you must minimise description and maximise analysis. The table below provides a useful comparison. You can also read this post which explains analysis vs description further.
C3: Did you present strong arguments?
To earn good marks, you need to present strong, logical arguments. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, not really. Weak arguments are extremely common in assignments, oftentimes because students don’t understand the basics of argument development. We’ve written a hearty post about argument development, but I’ll cover the bare basics here.
Sound arguments have (at least) three critical components/attributes:
- A set of premises – for example:
- Adwords advertising has achieved a 250% ROI for the firm.
- This is substantially higher than any other marketing channel.
- To date, Adwords has only constituted 10% of the marketing budget.
- A conclusion – for example:
- Therefore, the firm should shift some of its marketing spend from other channels to Adwords to improve total ROI. Alternatively, it should increase its overall budget to allow a larger investment in Adwords.
- Sound logic – for example:
- If the Adwords return was better than any other channel, it makes sense to at least consider spending more here and less there.
All too often, students present arguments that do not feature all three components. Sometimes, they don’t discuss the premises. Sometimes, they fail to draw a conclusion (perhaps assuming it’s obvious). Sometimes, the conclusion is too far a leap from the premises (i.e. poor logic). Whichever way, the argument falls apart and the marker cannot award marks.
You might also notice a link between argument structure and the last section about analysis vs description. Oftentimes, premises constitute description (“what”) and conclusions constitute analysis (“so what”). Therefore, description is not evil in itself – it just needs to be followed up with an insightful conclusion!
To summarise the “content” criterion:
- Selectively apply the right module theory for the right purpose.
- Analyse, don’t just describe.
- Present clear, logical arguments.
Right, onto the next assessment criterion.
Criterion #2: Structure
While the content criterion is all about “what” you discussed, the structure criterion is about “how” you structure and organise that discussion. There are two key questions to answer here:
S1: Is your assignment logically organised?
While every assignment is different, a sound organisational structure typically looks something like this:
- The introduction chapter should clearly identify the key issue(s) and the resultant research question(s). This should set the direction and scope of the assignment.
- The analysis chapter should then make use of theory, models and frameworks to generate insights that help answer the research question(s).
- The analysis should typically start at the macro-level and progress to the meso-level (industry and market) and finally the internal level. The weighting will depend on the module/topic and research question(s).
- The conclusion/recommendations chapter should clearly answer the research questions.
This probably sounds obvious, but all too often, students have unclear or very broad research questions (or none at all), their analysis jumps from macro to micro to meso (or skips a section altogether) or is ordered the wrong way around, and their conclusions don’t clearly tie back to the research questions. This all ends up making the assignment more difficult to read, confusing the marker and ultimately costing marks.
S2: Is there a clear, coherent thread of argument?
Clarity is critically important when writing your assignments. Think about it this way – not only do you know your business and challenge/opportunity infinitely better than your marker will; you’ve also spent many weeks working on it, mulling over data, considering options, etc, etc. Your marker, on the other hand, has very little industry knowledge (if any), is reading your assignment for the first time and, quite likely, is under a lot of time pressure. Simply put, you need to make it as easy as possible for them to follow your arguments.
So, how do you enhance clarity? Here are a few pointers:
- Make sure your arguments include the components we discussed earlier (clear premises and conclusions).
- When you use models and frameworks, make it clear why you’re using them (i.e. to answer what question) and then state your conclusion once you’ve applied each model.
- Similarly, when you start a new section of analysis (for example, meso-level analysis), briefly explain what you’ll be analysing in that section and why.
- Provide a brief summary of the key insights after each major section of analysis.
Apply these simple practices and your arguments should be much clearer in the first-time reader’s mind.
To recap the “structure” criterion:
- Organise your assignment in a logical fashion, opening with a clear research question(s) in the introduction chapter and closing with a clear answer(s) in the recommendations chapter.
- Make your thread of argument as clear as possible for the first-time reader by regularly reminding them why you’re doing what you’re doing, as well as what your key findings are.
Criterion #3: Presentation
I’ve written previously that quality presentation is the often-ignored, easily-mastered mark earner and Henley’s final criterion clearly reflects this. Get it right and it’s an easy mark multiplier – get it wrong and you’ll do your content a major disservice.
The markers are looking for (at least) two key things here:
P1: Does the assignment look professional and polished?
I distinctly remember the advice that a professor dispensed at one of our Henley MBA workshops. Essentially, he advised that you should put the same amount of effort into the presentation quality of your assignments as you would put into a presentation to the board of directors at your firm – a presentation on which your entire career depended!
More specifically, your assignments should:
- Make use of high-quality, crisp, clean visuals (frameworks and models) to complement the body copy. Make sure the text is suitably sized and uses the same font as the rest of the document.
- Present all numerical data clearly and intuitively, so that its easy for the marker to understand the story that the data tell. For example, use well-labelled graphs or charts to communicate trends, rather than a lengthy table with stacks of numbers (these, of course, can go in the appendix). Tip – this post explains which graph is best for different types of data.
- Make use of numbered headings and subheadings to help the marker orient themselves within the document. Similarly, number all tables and figures.
- Employ good grammar, straightforward language and correct spelling (ideally, UK English).
Again, this is all common sense, but all too often, students insert pixelated figures and tables with illegible, tiny text, they present hard to interpret, number-heavy tables and fail to spell check their work. Simply put, these sins are all completely avoidable and it really pays to invest a little extra time to get them right.
P2: Does the assignment follow the technical requirements?
Failing to adhere to the technical presentation requirements is the most wasteful way to lose marks because it’s so easy to get it right. The two main technical requirements are:
- Referencing – (consistently) applying the Harvard referencing format throughout the assignment.
- Labelling of figures and tables – correctly introducing, labelling and referencing figures and tables.
Referencing can easily be taken care of by using reference management software such as Mendeley or Zotero (see this straightforward explainer video here). Similarly, there’s a standard format for incorporating tables and figures (which I explain step-by-step here). These are easy wins, yet students consistently reference poorly and incorporate figures and tables incorrectly. Don’t be one of them!
In summary, presentation-related marks can be the easiest marks you’ll earn. Of course, great presentation won’t save an assignment with poor content, but it will certainly improve the mark-earning potential of good content.
Tip – if you really don’t have the time to polish your assignments, find yourself a good editor and proof-reader. If money’s tight, try Grammarly, an online spelling, grammar and plagiarism checker. Whatever you do, don’t rely on Word to catch your typos – it is notoriously unreliable.
At the time of writing, editing and proofreading services are allowed by the University of Reading, as long as the substance of the work remains your own and you disclose that you used such a service – see this page for more info.
Closing summary – the Henley way:
I hope that in this article I’ve managed to lift the veil on the nebulous Henley way. As I’m sure you can see, the Henley way just means good academic writing, and it’s really not that difficult to get it right. Just keep the three core criteria in mind when you craft your Henley assignments and you’ll be on the right track.
Here’s a quick recap:
- Selective application of prescribed module theory.
- Analytical writing, not just description.
- Strong, well-constructed arguments (premises, conclusions, logic).
- Logical structure and organisation of content.
- Clear presentation and resolution of the research questions.
- Clear thread of argument throughout.
- Professional, high-quality visuals, correct grammar and spelling.
- Harvard reference format used throughout and figures/tables correctly inserted.
Please keep in mind that this article is an overview of the key points, not a detailed listing of every possible assessment the markers make. Moreover, its based on my observations, having reviewed an extensive number of marker feedback reports. In other words, it’s not perfect (surprise!). If you have additional observations, please let me know by leaving a comment or popping us an email.